On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a one-day visit to Russia to attend the unveiling of the new Cathedral Mosque in Moscow, described as one of the largest Muslim prayer halls in Europe. He also met with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, and announced the lofty goal of reaching $100 billion in trade between their two countries by 2023.

Russia's importance to Turkey's economy — particularly its energy sector — perhaps shadowed the comments Erdogan made on his return. When asked about a solution to Syria's brutal civil war, the Turkish president gestured to a long-mooted, potential "process" of political transition. He spoke directly for the first time of the possible role that could be played by the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"The process could possibly be without Assad, or the transitional process could be with him," Erdogan told reporters after Eid prayers in Istanbul.

Erdogan, perhaps more than any major world leader, has been consistent and adamant about the need for Assad to step down before anything else is settled in Syria.

"A Syria without Assad has been a slogan for a number of Western governments," notes Murat Yetkin, editor of Hurriyet Daily News, an Istanbul-based English newspaper, "but Turkey has insisted that the timing of Assad’s removal should come at the beginning of the 'transition' period, not at the end of it."

Erdogan's admission here that Assad could be part of some "transitional process" is a big one. He's also not alone in tacitly acknowledging the need to dialogue with Assad. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made similar remarks this week when discussing the need for a resolution to a war that has sparked the current refugee crisis gripping Europe.

"We have to speak with many actors. This includes Assad, but others as well," Merkel said.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry also indicated that while "Assad has to go," the U.S. would be flexible about the circumstances and timing of his future departure.

"We're prepared to negotiate," said Kerry.

The backdrop to all this is Russia's renewed defense of the Assad regime, a longstanding ally. The Russian military escalation in Syria includes a new airfield and a squadron of fighter jets near the coastal city of Latakia, as well as the possibility of Russian-led airstrikes against the Islamic State. The deployment has raised fears in Washington and Ankara that the conflict will become even more intractable.

"They have taken [to] the field. This is very dangerous. Therefore, we watch with deep concern," said Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu on Wednesday.

While Russian officials say their involvement is aimed at fighting the jihadist Islamic State, it's clear that the Kremlin is keen on bolstering Assad, whose regime has lost control over vast swaths of Syria and has looked, at points, to be on the verge of collapse.

Turkey fears the consequences of an even more prolonged conflict, which could see the regime cling to a coastal enclave dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, while a range of rebel, Islamist and Kurdish factions carve up the rest of the country.

"Assad wants to establish a boutique Syria that begins in Damascus and takes in Homs and Latakia," said Erdogan on Thursday, referring to a handful of major western Syrian cities. Turkey wants to see the unitary state of Syria — which, like Turkey, has a majority Sunni population — survive rather than implode into a number of fiefdoms.

It's particularly opposed to the emergence of a de facto Syrian Kurdish state in the country's north, especially after the collapse of a cease-fire between Turkey and the guerrillas of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement deemed a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington.

Earlier this summer, Turkey forged a pact with Washington, allowing the U.S. to run missions from Incirlik air base against Islamic State positions in Syria. But Ankara used the moment to also launch a concerted campaign against PKK camps, including airstrikes in northern Iraq.

The messiness of the conflict doesn't necessarily help those seeking an end to the Assad status quo.

Speaking in New York ahead of next week's session of the U.N. General Assembly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reiterated his own government's support for Assad, echoing Russia's argument that the surest way to defeat the Islamic State is by backing Assad.

"Stability can perhaps be imagined with democracy, but democracy cannot be brought to fruition without stability," Rouhani said. He also warned that if the Assad regime "continues to be weakened, it will help the terrorists."

The Washington Post's executive editor Marty Baron has more from Rouhani:

“Iran, whether anyone likes it or not, is a powerful and effective country in the region,” he said.
Asked how closely Iran is working with Russia, another Assad ally, and whether there is a military coalition in Syria or the prospect of one, Rouhani noted that Russia has close relations with Syria and that Syria’s weapons systems are Russian. He also referred to “friendly relations, close relations between Russia and Iran.”
In his discussions with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, Rouhani said, Putin has indicated that Russia wants to take a “more active and effective role in fighting terrorism, particularly Daesh.” He referred to the Islamic State, which is called Daesh in Arabic and is also known as ISIS and ISIL.
But Rouhani dismissed idea of an actual coalition with the Russians. “There is no coalition between us vis-a-vis Syria,” he said, although the countries consult and share intelligence.

Erdogan and other critics of the Assad regime have pinned both the rise of the Islamic State and the current exodus of refugees on the Syrian government, which continues to drop bombs on crowded urban centers of the country.

But Rouhani dismissed reports that Assad’s forces have been using powerful barrel bombs against Syrian civilians. "I have no such information," he said, according to Baron. "Is it possible for a government to kill its own people?"